Left, Right and Wrong: Political Labels & Biases


Photo by Sohel Parvez Haque via Flickr (CC)

In just a few days, polling booths in the UK will open for the general election. For the past weeks, all social media platforms have been buzzing with excitement and anger. “Scandal! Lies exposed! So-and-so must go!”, shout people as they share the newest cartoons mocking those they hate.

Since most of my friends are in the arts, media, film or theatre, I am surrounded by a very left-wing tone of discourse. Some of that discourse aligns with my very liberal social views. I’m a passionate supporter of freedom and equal rights for everyone and I strongly believe that people should be able to live and work anywhere and with whomever they want regardless of origin, sex, gender, etc. I recycle and I am moderately concerned about the environment. I oppose military conflict and any form of aggression. It’s easy to assume that I am left-wing. I am not—not in the economic sense at least.

At the same time, I am not right-wing either: as much as I support economic freedom, many of the policies traditionally found on the right (attachment to the Church, protection of “family values”, anti-abortion laws, restrictions on immigration) don’t resonate with me.*

Who am I then? With my liberal views on all four “wings”, I probably best fit into the “libertarian” box**. But here’s a problem: I don’t really like boxes. For one thing, they’re tight and restricting, for another: they are a sure way to prevent people from communicating and understanding each other.

If I were to vote in this country (which I’m not yet eligible to), I would have a hard time deciding who to vote for. But to be clear: this post isn’t about Labour, Tories, LibDems, UKIP, SNP or the Green Party. It’s about why these names evoke the kind of emotional response that limits our ability to see, read and listen beyond the tag, and about the errors we encounter at the very core of forming political beliefs.

3 for 2

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A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend who at the time was looking for a job and got what seemed like a good offer but declined it. “The owner is right-wing,” she explained, “So you see—I couldn’t work for him”. At that point, I realized just how bad these labels can be. Did my friend know what the owner actually believed in and why? Maybe she did, maybe not. Quite often a label, a name of a political party, a politician’s name is enough to end a conversation. Labels are shortcuts we use to classify other people as friends or foes. Instead of trying to understand each other, we make assumptions and judgements. We cease to discuss our ideas with those who don’t repeat the same slogans, and high-five those who share our articles and cartoons. We are right, THEY are wrong. Political debates, as Jeffrey A. Tucker points in his article for the Freeman, are often “shrill and unproductive, with two sides battling it out and making no intellectual progress. They bring more heat than light. If you are going to change that pattern, you must have the confidence to listen carefully to other ideas and not be threatened by them.” He adds that we should familiarize ourselves with ideas different from our own: “Read broadly”.

This isn’t easy. Even the process of acquiring information itself is challenging, because we are all equally prone to cognitive biases—tendencies to think in ways that can lead to deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgement.

Some biases are useful, for they allow us to process information more efficiently, and act quickly especially in dangerous situations (if we see something on fire, the cognitive shortcut tells us to put the fire out). But most biases aren’t useful at all, because they lead us to make dubious decisions and reach wrong conclusions. And there are hundreds of them. Enough for psychologist Daniel Kahneman to have dedicated his career to exploring human (ir)rationality, which revolutionised cognitive psychology and social psychology, opened up the field of behavioural economics and got him a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Vernon L. Smith).

Wrong Way

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Among cognitive biases, there are a few that are especially detrimental to forming political beliefs.

The Bandwagon Effect, which stems from our need to fit in and conform, leads us to shut our individual judgement, and follow the group, however large (nation) or small (family), adopting their mentality and behaviour. The Ingroup Favoritism, linked to the “tend and defend” effect of joy hormone oxytocin, makes us favour and trust members of our in-group, while feeling defensive towards out-group members.

And then there’s the confirmation bias: listening to information that fuels our pre-existing opinions, and ignoring or dismissing opinions that threaten our world view, regardless of their validity. Tucker’s plea for reading broadly is an ambitious one. If you are a die-hard believer in traditional Christian values, you will be very reluctant to read LGBT press. Most articles my left-leaning friends share on social media are from the Guardian. The tendency to search for information in a way that confirms our beliefs is so strong that most of us aren’t even aware of it. Once we’ve become X or Y paper readers, surrounded by a circle of like-minded (or like-biased) people, it’s very hard for us to critically evaluate our beliefs.

But biases can and should be overcome, and the way to do it is through objective examination of data and statistics. In the meanders of complex subjective ideologies, facts and figures can help remain sceptical and refrain from spreading contagious falsehoods. A bunch of numbers and graphs without any particular name attached to it minimizes the risk of having our mind clouded with emotional response. You might hate certain politicians, but you’re less likely to hate statisticians and independent economists.

Numerous people complain about rising crime, a criticism that gets thrown into a general negative evaluation of current times. If you’re one of them, you’ll be surprised when you look at the data. Crime isn’t rising—it is in fact going down, and in the UK it is currently at its lowest since 1981.

The fall of crime, result of the coincidence of several causes, is a good example of how flawed our beliefs can be. As The Economist points out, “Cherished social theories have been discarded. Conservatives who insisted that the decline of the traditional nuclear family and growing ethnic diversity would unleash an unstoppable crime wave have been proved wrong. Young people are increasingly likely to have been brought up by one parent and to have played a lot of computer games. Yet they are far better behaved than previous generations. Left-wingers who argued that crime could never be curbed unless inequality was reduced look just as silly.”

Complex issued such as whether or not to privatise (areas of) large public-funded bodies (i.e. the NHS) are complex for a reason—the number of factors to analyse and predictions to make several steps ahead is huge. But again, before getting locked in our pro or against stance, it might be worth looking at some figures pertaining to an institution that underwent a similar process. The history of the rail in Great Britain could provide some insight. From 1830 until 1923 the rail was private, and the number of its users was escalating rapidly. The government was however concerned about the multiple companies competing with each other and potential chaos resulting from that, and in 1923 divided the lines between four companies (The Big Four period, 1923-1947). In 1948, “for both practical and ideological reasons, the government decided to bring the rail service into the public sector”. The nationalisation resulted in a gradual decline in popularity, until 1995, when the rail was privatized with the hope that this would improve passenger services. It did, and passenger levels instantly increased. According to the Wikipedia, they are not only increasingly more popular but also the second safest in Europe after Luxembourg. But the privatisation issue is hugely controversial and it’s one where the Status Quo Bias kicks in—we like things to remain as they are, believing that another choice will most certainly be inferior or destructive.

Rail passenger numbers in Great Britain, 1830–2012 (millions)

Image by Tompw for the Wikipedia, 2012 (CC)

In the case of the healthcare debate, a common preconception is that there are only 2 available options: the freely available NHS in the UK or the convoluted system of private insurance in the US, which leaves people out of pocket. Compared to the American system, the NHS surely is better. But there are other options. Singapore, ranked as the 1st most efficient healthcare system in the world in 2014 (government healthcare amounts to only 1.6% of annual GDP, compared to 15.2% in the US), has a system where “the government ensures affordability of healthcare within the public health system, largely through a system of compulsory savings, subsidies, and price controls. (…) Patients are free to choose the providers within the government or private healthcare delivery system and can walk in for a consultation at any private clinic or any government polyclinic.” According to the World Health Organisation, Singapore has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world (equalled only by Iceland) and among the highest life expectancies from birth. In Europe, a very good model of healthcare can be found in the Netherlands. The Dutch system combines mandatory affordable universal coverage with competing private health plans, and people have freedom to choose where to buy their health insurance and get their healthcare service. Wikipedia tells us that “Based on public statistics, patient polls, and independent research the Netherlands arguably has the best health care system of 32 European countries,” according to the Health Consumer Powerhouse Research.

If the first thing you ever read on the minimum wage was an article supporting it, the Anchoring Bias will make you stick to that view. This is a controversial debate, with no obvious right or wrong answer. It is worth suspending the hostility towards the “out-group”. The minimum wage supporters believe that it protects the poor, therefore they assume that people who oppose the minimum wage are only concerned about the welfare of CEOs. But people who oppose minimum wage do so because they believe the minimum wage actually harms the poor, making it harder for the unemployed to get a job.

It is perfectly possible to understand why people defend the minimum wage. But if you favour following expert opinion on, say, climate change (i.e. a majority of climate scientists believe in global warming, so global warming probably exists) then, to be consistent, you should be unsure of the benefits of the minimum wage because the economics profession is unsure of its benefits.

The economist William Dunkelberg analyses figures and explains the process:

“Consider a community based pizza parlor selling 100 pies a day for 360 days at $10 each. Total revenue is $360,000. It employs 10 minimum wage workers earning $7 per hour, working 2000 hours a year, making labor costs $140,000. Assume rent, utilities, equipment, depreciation, insurance, supplies, licenses, and food costs come to $170,000 per year, leaving a profit of $50,000 for the owner and his/her family. Raising the minimum wage $1 would raise labor costs by $20,000 (paying more for the same amount of labor) and reduce profit to $30,000. The owner must either move into a smaller house or raise prices, which reduces the demand for pizza, resulting in the loss of a worker.  So, the full increase in the wage cost of an increase in the minimum wage comes out of the pockets of customers or the owner’s family, and the one person who loses a job. (…)The Law of Demand always works:  the higher the price of anything, the less that will be taken, and this includes labor.”

The burden of the minimum wage falls on those who are in real poverty and need jobs most. As Lorraine Woellert from Bloomberg puts it, “The minimum wage is an inefficient tool for poverty relief because so many of its beneficiaries, such as teenagers and part-timers, aren’t poor.” As economist Milton Friedman would say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Work place democracy

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Even when faced with evidence contrary to our beliefs, we are reluctant to change them. If anything, our views are likely to get strengthened.

In his excellent book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini gives a powerful example of this bias, describing the startling success the Guardians’ cult. Started by Dr. Thomas Armstrong and Mrs. Marian Keech, the cult, which initially avoided publicity, focused its activity around the prophecy of an impending flood that would destroy the world. “Although the cultists were understandably alarmed at first, further messages assured them that they and all those who believed in the Lessons sent through Mrs. Keech would survive. Before the calamity, spacemen were to arrive and carry off the believers in flying saucers to a place of safety, presumably on another planet. Many believers quit their jobs or neglected their studies to devote full time to the movement. Some even gave or threw away their personal belongings, expecting them shortly to be of no use.”

And then the bizarre happened after midnight on the night of the supposed catastrophe: “No saucer had landed, no spacemen had knocked, no flood had come, nothing had happened as prophesied. Since the only acceptable form of truth had been undercut by physical proof, there was but one way out of the corner for the group. It had to establish another type of proof for the validity of its beliefs: social proof.” From “secretive conspirators”, Dr. Armstrong and his followers became avid missionaries, committed to their prophecy more than ever, despite the physical proof of its falsehood.

When in 1998 a study by Andrew Wakefield was published, which suggested that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine was increasing autism in children, multiple anti-vaccination organizations began sprouting up around the world. In the years that followed, Wakefield’s study turned out to have been manipulated, and got completely discredited, while numerous further studies found no link between any vaccine and the likelihood of developing autism. Yet the anti-vaccination organizations are still very active, and are an example of the effect called Persistence of Discredited Beliefs, when at least some of the initial belief remains even after the falsehood is exposed.

Despite our capabilities to produce self-driving cars, record images of individual stars in a 61,000-light-year-long galaxy, and do uterus transplants, we can think and act in spectacularly irrational ways. Prone to multiple cognitive biases, we’re wrong more often than any of us would like to admit. People behind initiatives like Less Wrong are concerned about the problem, but most of us not only aren’t concerned—we are simply not aware of the deviations in our thinking.

In the light of the upcoming election, I think it’s important to be aware of these biases, and also bear in mind that people who support different parties and politicians don’t necessarily have opposing values—in fact, they might share the same goals (peace, security, financial stabilization, fighting poverty and unemployment, etc.) but have different ideas for solutions to the problems.

There are many circling preconceptions on both the left and the right: the hatred for bankers and corporations, the assumption that free-market supporters aren’t concerned with the welfare of the poor but the small group of the rich; the idea that wealth distribution can only happen through governmental initiatives or the opposite—that any governmental regulations can result in a police state, and that morality doesn’t exist without a religion. To perpetuate these assumptions is a sure way of closing a conversation before it even begins. Is that a way forward? I very much doubt it.

Let me end on a quote from Jeffrey A. Tucker: “Do you know anyone who actually opposes human freedom? I don’t. It’s just that we all have different ways of understanding that idea and different levels of tolerance for its inconsistent application.” Think of other people as allies, not enemies. We’re on this planet together and we all want it to work.


Photo by Project-128 via Flickr (CC)

* For the life of me, I could never understand why social liberalism had been paired with governmental control over the economics, and social conservatism with free markets.

** Humourist author Dave Barry has been quoted saying, I’m a libertarian… Does it matter to me that it’s Democrats who think we need more elaborate programs that involve shifting money from one group to another group, or it’s Republicans saying we need to take a harder look at what kinds of things people are watching on cable TV? Neither one of those things strikes me as a good idea.